We arrived in Tokyo on a Friday afternoon. Picked up the bags, bought a SIM card and booked seats on the train that would take us into the city. Ordinarily, I’d grab a cab to the hotel after a long flight. In Japan, that would cost more than $300. And if you read my first post, nope.
The high-speed train that runs the length of the country is called the Shinkansen – and it moves fast. I watched the scenery glide by. The city seemed muted. Square windows, flat walls, soft colours. Minimalist. But then, I caught just a glimpse of a curve among all the hard edges. Forest green tiles thickly interlaced and glossy, sliding down the peaked roof of a shrine.
I’d been in a Buddhist temple before, Nan Tien in Sydney, Australia. It’s impressive, but built in 1967, pretty fresh-faced. These were different. And they were everywhere.
After a night’s sleep and coffee – in a café because ‘to go’ is not a thing in Japan – we arrived at the first by accident. We were walking down a stone path in the middle of one of the busiest parts of the city. It was early and there wasn’t anyone around as we entered the grounds. We took a few pictures, but it was closed, and I felt like I was trespassing, so we moved on.
Our second day in the city called for a second shrine…and the subsequent crashing of a couple weddings. Meiji Jingu sits in the middle of a Central Park-ish evergreen forest. A man with a bamboo broom was sweeping the gravel path as we walked up, and beyond him, a guard in white gloves who motioned us away from the main entrance to a side doorway. It was Saturday, and it was busy.
As we stepped over the threshold, we saw the procession. They made their way across the central sanctuary in formation. Priests at the front, followed by maidens in kimonos, the bride and groom, and finally the guests. As they approached the side where we stood, they turned away from us and walked along the inner wall before disappearing through a door.
The entire procession reappeared fifteen minutes later, following a Shinto ceremony that includes a ritual purification, the announcement of the marriage to the kami (spirits of the shrine) and a shot of sake. It’s actually three sips each from a sacred cup, but after walking through a throng of camera-heavy tourists, they deserved the former.
A second wedding followed, and everyone gathered to watch them move through the shrine. It was beautiful and interesting, but once again, I felt like I was trespassing.
With a couple days in the city under our belts, we were ready to attempt the Japanese subway system and take the train to Senso-Ji. Side note – if you’re going to Japan, take everyone’s advice and GET THE WIFI. Google will tell you what train, what platform and when it arrives.
As Tokyo’s oldest temple, and one of its most significant, Senso-Ji is one of the most widely visited spiritual sites in the world. More than 30 million people walk the grounds every year. Its imposing entrance gives way to a bustling complex, complete with pagoda, Japanese garden, purification fountain, the shrine itself and…incense.
I smelled it before I saw it. Sandalwood. When we rounded the corner and walked into the square, smoke was pouring out of what looked like a large gold cauldron with a small peaked roof. From a distance, it could have been a campfire, with a chaotic collection of people moving about it. Someone would walk to a box sitting atop a post. They’d drop a few coins in, select a tied bundle of incense and light it. Then they would walk to the cauldron, hold the smoking sticks to their chest or up over their head and close their eyes.
For some, it was a swift succession of movements. Others lingered. Eyes closed. Letting the smoke drift down across their face. It was these people I found the most fascinating. I’m not a spiritual person. I’ve tried meditation and I was about as successful as Julia Roberts. But these individuals, standing amid a sea of people, were able to shut it all out. Even if it was only for a minute.
I watched them. Hundreds of them. It was noisy. People talking, taking selfies, bumping into one another as they made their way across the courtyard. Lots of apologies and bows and smiles. More selfies. It was as if everyone we’d seen over the last two days, had joined us here. That, while this was a place where tourists came, it was also the beating heart of the city. Locals and visitors alike. We were not trespassing.
I lowered my camera, dug a hand into my pocket and pulled out a few coins. I listened to the clinking sounds they made as they slipped between the wooden slats of the donation box. When the tip of the incense lit, I took a deep breath. People shifted, giving me some space. Together, we proceeded. Hold the sticks with one hand, use the other to pull the smoke towards your head, bow and plant them in the sand.
I’ve been home for a couple weeks now, and I have yet to open the box of incense I brought back. But I will. When the days are gray, and the windows of my apartment are streaked with rain, I’ll light one and give meditation another try. I won’t be good at it. But I will remember this place. How I stopped for just one minute, and let Tokyo in.
I’ve got more stories on this trip coming soon. I hope you’ll check back.